In comparing portraits to dauguerreotypes, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that “Daguerreotypes give the sculpture of the face, but omits of the expression, the painter aims at the expression and comes far short of Daguerre in the form and organization. But we must have the sea and the shore, the flowing and the fixed, in every work of art. On the sitter the effect of the Daguerrotypist is asinizing.”
It’s not only expression, but character and thought that Thomas Eakins was able to capture in his portraits. This may not be so attributed to skill, though there’s plenty of that in his work, but resulting from the fact that many of his subjects were not unfamiliar nobility, but people he knew intimately. In contrast to Eakins, John Singer Sargent conveyed a material world and how a wealthy figure was able to sit into it. This is generally the story of portraits from Romney to Copley and beyond. But for Eakins, the story is different, here the subject matter was as much the person, from the outside in.
Perhaps this is more important for no other sitter than a fellow artist. Among whom were painted by Eakins are Joseph Woodwell, Charles Linford, John McClure Hamilton, Frank Linton, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Leslie Miller and Samuel Murray. None are as notable as Eakins, but all are fortunate to have a bit of their personality survive thanks to his work.
I’ve talked about Joseph Ryan Woodwell recently, and the work of Charles Linford has also been noted on these pages. The former was an impressionist landscape painter, the latter a painter of deep wood scenes. Both hail from Pittsburgh.
Also from Pittsburgh, Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where Eakins was an instructor. Eakins’s progressive views and ability to excite and inspire his students would have a profound effect on Tanner. The young artist proved to be one of Eakins’s favorite students. Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work, racism was a prevalent condition in Philadelphia. In his autobiography Tanner wrote:
“I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.”
Tanner left America for France in the winter of 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he would spend the rest of his life there. Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885) hangs in the Green Room at the White House; it is the first painting by an African-American artist to enter the permanent collection.
Leslie W. Miller, a founder and officer of the Art Club of Philadelphia and served as the first principal of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (PMSIA, now The University of the Arts College of Art and Design) from 1880 to 1920. Born in Brattleboro, Vermont, on August 5, 1848, Miller studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and graduated from the Massachusetts Normal Art School. Eakins portrait of Miller is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He painted it in a building at Broad and Pine streets building now called Hamilton Hall.
Eakins also painted Sculptor Samuel Aloysius M. Murray who enrolled at the Art Students League of Philadelphia at the age of 17 and later shared a studio.
Murray was well-known in the Philadelphia area for his sculpture and portraits. A few of the large-scale works by Murray are ten biblical figures of terra-cotta for the eighth-floor ledge of the Witherspoon Building in Philadelphia, a large bronze statue of Commodore John Barry located near Independence Hall, and the marble Civil War monument topped by a 20 -foot-high bronze Winged Victory for Gettysburg National Military Park.
Also painted by Eakins was portrait artist Frank Linton.
Beatrice Fenton was captured on canvas by Eakins in The Coral Necklace, now at the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The works of Fenton are housed today at the Philadelphia Art Club, Fairmont Park, Charles M. Schimity Memorial Academy of Music, and at the “Fairy Fountain” in Wister Park, Philadelphia. She was known for her sculptures dealing with water.
Last, but certainly not least is Eakins self-portrait, painted as the final prerequisite of membership in the National Academy of Design in 1902. He initially showed himself in a turtleneck sweater, before opting for a more professional-looking black coat and tie. It seems as if looking into the face who knew the artists, saw them work, taught them and then painted their faces– and their souls, looking into Eakins own portrait might just be the most revealing.
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